The once-thriving Australian travel industry has been, understandably, one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 restrictions, but there is a sunrise on the horizon.
It’s true that we’ve never seen an impact like this on the industry, with travel bans, border closures and mandates not to travel taking a huge toll on Australia’s tourism operators.
I particularly feel for local, small business ground operators who have gone from thriving to having no travellers literally overnight, especially so soon after the bushfire tragedy in January. But, in reality, everyone in the tourism industry is hurting at the moment.
The restrictions and travel bans have been crucial to managing Australia’s COVID-19 outbreak, but now, as we begin to see an easing of these restrictions across the country, both travel businesses and consumers should start planning for the road ahead.
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Making a sharp pivot successfully
The travel industry was affected by the COVID-19 lockdown more quickly than most other industries.
At Luxury Escapes, we were enjoying some of our best ever results in January and February — but within five to six days, everything had turned. This sudden impact was not unique to us; almost every partner we work with was in a similar position.
The travel businesses that have been able to operate with some level of success so far are those that have been able to pivot quickly to a new reality in a very short space of time. Beyond the universal issues of the pandemic — such as making the shift to remote working — travel companies also had to handle an explosion in customer service needs, while making sure their business was set up to weather the storm and get through to the other side.
To manage the customer requests, we moved to redeploy staff from across the business to the customer team, implemented a 24/7 call centre and introduced self-service options. This allowed us to go from changing an average of 1,000 bookings a month to more than 45,000.
Some companies, including us, have encouraged travellers to delay, rather than cancel, their holidays and have introduced a 110% credit voucher. Many of the largest travel brands in Australia have capped or removed cancellation fees.
For travel businesses, surviving through the shutdown has been challenging. After suspending its ‘Experiences’ product until the end of April, Airbnb began offering ‘Virtual Experiences’ after a broader rise in virtual tourism. The fee for Virtual Experiences may be smaller, but it has enabled Airbnb hosts to keep going during this difficult time.
Some hotel groups are even offering virtual tours to would-be corporate customers, in a bid to secure their account ahead of business travel reopening.
Some travel companies have been able to make a sharp pivot to provide a new service during the pandemic. Britz Campervans has been providing self-contained motor homes as emergency solutions for isolation and quarantine, as well as essential worker services and emerging housing. It’s a great example of using an existing product for a different, but important purpose.
So far, our customer data has generally mirrored where the states are at in easing restrictions. Those that are further ahead in reducing travel restrictions are already seeing intrastate travel interest and bookings, and announcements in New South Wales and Victoria have helped to drive consumer confidence.
E-commerce travel will increase as many traditional travel agents have downsized store numbers over the past couple of months. When travel does bounce back, we might see more online travel sites — whether direct tourism providers or third party retailers — actually grow in share.
This has happened in overseas markets, including in the US and Britain, over the past 10 years. The pandemic might have created the pivot point where the e-commerce travel sector rapidly increases in share in Australia.
We’re also expecting that the types of holidays Australians are keen to take will be shaped by the impact of COVID-19, beyond the restrictions themselves, for some time ahead. We’ll see more driving holidays as people choose to see Australia in their own vehicle rather than take a flight, and the earlier opening of national parks suggests camping, hiking and fishing holidays will bounce back quicker.
Historically, Aussies have chosen to take shorter and more frequent domestic trips compared with their overseas travel, but expect this to change with domestic travel likely to be our only form of travel for some time.
For travel companies with a reliance on international business, now is the time to consider substitute Australian partners, understand the appetite from your existing customer base to local options, and deliver domestic solutions if possible.
More than 8.5 million international travellers came to Australia last year, but Australians took more than 6.3 million overseas holidays last year. While the road to recovery will take time, if enough Aussies get out there and see their own backyard this year, we’ll be on our way to a stronger, more robust economy for travel operators of all sizes.
Having worked with hundreds of businesses across the Australian travel industry, I know our industry is resilient. I also believe that we are a nation of travellers, and our desire to travel and see the world won’t disappear. When we do go back to travelling, hopefully, it will be with a renewed appreciation of the role that travel plays in our lives.